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Our writer is back at Aleksandra and Mieczysław Babalski’s organic farm in the north of Poland, where ...
2020-07-10 09:00:00

Work With Your Green Fingers
A Return to the Life of Soil

Work With Your Green Fingers

And at last I see Pokrzydowo’s old varieties of grain in full bloom. What am I saying? I don’t see them; I enter them, touch them and inhale their scent.

Read in 6 minutes

The car bounces down the sandy track, and the gentle, warm air blows in through the window. We pass the overgrown orchard and park. I was sure I’d see straight, golden rows of grain. But instead it’s a meadow full of flowers. Farmer Mieczysław Babalski gets out of the car and immediately heads toward the towering green and yellow stalks of emmer, oats and spelt, toward the blue cornflowers and the small white blossoms of buckwheat. I run after him, but at the edge of the field I stop, and call out:

“But Mr Mietek, if I go in here I’ll get a tick!”

The only thing I hear in response is a loud laugh, so tough luck, I leap right into the middle of the grain and the first thing I encounter isn’t a tick, but a huge, bright green forest bug. He’s sitting at the very top of a stalk and looks like he’s just getting ready to jump onto my face.

“Forest bugs,” Mr Mietek laughs. “They love emmer. And when it comes to ticks, they get onto me all the time, but they don’t want to dig in. There’s nothing in it for them. If your liver’s working properly, your blood is clean, so a tick won’t drink it. Because it will harm him. It’s the same for mosquitoes: they love people with sweet blood.

“They love me.”

“That means your liver’s not working right, you have to build it up. Father Klimuszko used to say: ‘Eat seven dandelion leaves a day for a week, and you’ll forget you ever had liver problems.’ People used to raise rabbits, right? And rabbits love dandelions – the ones we commonly call sow-thistles. Everybody would pick the sow-thistles and bring them to the rabbits. Your hands got yellow, your skin absorbed it and it fixed your liver. Just like the young women in the spring, when the dandelions bloomed, would weave crowns for themselves, and the juice made their skin pretty. Dandelions grow all year, and a person with a bad liver will always have them all around and will always be fighting them: cutting them, or spraying. And instead they should eat them, and then the dandelions will go away on their own. Because plants know how to help you.”

“But where in Warsaw am I going to gather enough dandelions for a whole week?”

“Not for a whole week! Whenever you get the chance, go pluck some leaves. Don’t overdo it, because if you eat too many you’ll get sick. And a little bit of bitterness will loosen up your gall bladder; the bile is purified, it treats the liver. You also need bitterness in your life!”

We walk between the heads of spelt, I open up the delicate grains and squeeze them lightly. A white liquid flows out.

“That’s the milk stage,” Mr Mietek explains. “This is the stage where spelt milk is made. Then it’s waxy, and then full. And over there are rough oats, you see how dark they are? We’re just trying them out, maybe they’ll be better than the common oats. They’ll work for oatmeal; we’ll see, maybe they’ll work for flakes, too. Because they have one advantage: the fat they contain doesn’t go rancid. And here’s purple wheat; we use it to make purple flour. It’s not spreading well; we’ll have to start cultivating it differently. It was farmed on the Danish islands, the climate’s different there. Let’s see, let’s see… the clover’s already growing here, see it down there? And here’s blue phacelia and buckwheat. These ripe pyramids will make buckwheat groats. Oh, look here, at what’s happening on the emmer!”

It’s true: on the emmer heads, thin but strong stems are spreading out, topped with clusters of white flowers. They’re all over. I’m struck by their sweet and simultaneously refreshing scent.

“Melilot. Good for honey and butterflies, so it enriches the soil well. I sowed it ten years ago and it only came up now. And it attacked me, you can say, it covered all this emmer. We’ll see, there’s no need to worry.”

“Mr Mietek, it’s such a weed, and it smells like the most beautiful, niche perfume!”

“Yep. In convention [conventional farming] you don’t get this. You saw that field we passed in the car? Withered grains, and empty. No weeds. Because the life of the soil has died out there. And here: green, all kinds of plants. The melilot came out when it wanted to.”

“And when’s the harvest?”

“Always at the end of July, beginning of August. We’ll start tomorrow, maybe the day after. It’s best when the sun shines right from the morning, and after lunch you can start to cut. That’s when you get the best harvests, the best grain quality. And when it’s misty, humid, then the grain is moist. For that same reason, you should never harvest during the full moon. Because when it’s full, even though the weather will be nice, there’s moisture during the day. Water flows upward, it comes out of the earth.”

“How long will the harvest last?”

“About two weeks. It used to be a lot of work, everything was done by hand. The mowing, binding, carrying shocks, later threshing. That was some work!”

“And now you have a combine?”

“A friend does. He comes, mows, threshes – everything at once. If I had to go back to those times, I wouldn’t manage, because lots of people have allergies. Before, anybody would be happy to go cut some hay for their cows, but now nobody does, because their nose starts running right away. Nobody lies down to sleep in the hay, because they wouldn’t sleep, just sneeze. So this happiness is gone. Once, when you brought in the hay you’d stomp it down; now there are bales, you don’t have to tread it out.”

“But even so, two weeks of harvesting is a lot of work.”

“Work is happiness! You sit and watch a beautiful film. You like it, you’re happy. It ends, and you regret it. Because actually, if you’d been doing something useful during that time, you’d have joy. That’s just how it is: when you create something, something good remains in you.”

“Sometimes it’s hard to pull yourself together, it’s easier to watch the film.”

“Then your joy disappears quickly. You get into a car you immediately want coffee, or something sweet. And then you want to stop again, to eat something. And once you’ve eaten, then you need the bathroom...”

“It’s like you were watching my journey to Pokrzydowo today!”

“Yes, and when you go to the garden and work, you forget about everything. About that coffee, that hunger. What’s worst is when somebody comes to visit, then we go for coffee. And you have an hour, and it’s done. Because when you go out and pick fruit or vegetables, with the joy that you’re doing something good and you can give something good to someone, then the fruit will also be joyful, sweeter. It will feel good, and won’t rot. Just a moment and it will be eaten. And when you go out reluctantly, ‘Oh, dammit, I have to harvest again,’ it won’t taste good to anybody. It will just lie there on the plate.”

“OK, but what if I have another profession, should I also work with my green fingers?”

“Eagerly and with joy! The point is to transfer your energy. But you also have to know what you want to say. And then the message is true, joyful. And if somebody gets bored, starts nodding off, then it’s better to stop writing, because nobody’s going to remember anything from it. Write to stimulate people. So the person who reads your text will seek what you saw.”

The sun falls on the line of the forest, lighting up the heads of emmer with a warm, orange light. The harvest is tomorrow.

This interview was conducted in July 2019.


Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino